Santiago de Compostela – Iacchus and The Green Language of the Camino

Iacchus and The Green Language of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

 ‘Iacchus was the torch bearer of the procession from Eleusis, sometimes regarded as the herald of the ‘divine child’ of the Goddess, born in the underworld, and sometimes as the child itself.’
Iacchus is an epithet of Dionysus, particularly associated with the Mysteries at Eleusis, where he was considered to be the son of Zeus and Demeter. In a Paean to Dionysus discovered at Delphi, the god is described as being named Iacchos at Eleusis, where he “brings salvation”.

Iakkhos bearing a torch, seen here with Hekate

 The name Iacchus is often associated with the modern name Giacomo, but when we look at the Spanish name, Iago (St. Iago), other links become apparent. Iacchus was considered the ‘Light Bearing Star of the nocturnal mysteries’ and some of the earliest pre-Christian pilgrimages were associated with travelling ‘to the end of the world’, Finisterre, during their lifetime.

According to texts ascribed to Nicolas Flamel almost two hundred years after his death, he had learned alchemical secrets from a Jewish converso, on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Flamel lived in Paris in the fourteenth and fifteenth century and his life is one of the best documented in the history of medieval alchemy. According to an introduction to the texts, Flamel had made it his life’s work to understand the text of a mysterious 21-page book he had purchased. The introduction claims that, around 1378, he travelled to Spain for assistance with translation. On the way back, he reported that he met a sage, who identified Flamel’s book as being a copy of the original Book of Abramelin the Mage. If the pilgrimage has always been associated with the re-birth of the pilgrim, in an alchemic way, as Flamel was alleged to believe, I think we can see a direct correlation here. The pilgrim would become Iago/Iacchus, (St. James) the Divine child born in the darkness at the end of the world, meaning that modern pilgrims who walk the route without this knowledge are walking the route in reverse, to see some relics that are more than likely not the bones of ‘St James’, with the strongest claim being that the remains that rest in Compostela belong to Priscillian of Avila.

After the death of Christ the disciples dispersed to different parts of the then known world, to spread the Gospel as they had been bidden. Saint James went to Spain, we are told, where he spent a couple of years evangelising, though apparently without a great deal of success. He then returned to Jerusalem but was beheaded by Herod shortly afterwards, in AD 44. Immediately following his martyrdom, however, his followers are said to have taken his body to Jaffa, on the coast, where a ship was miraculously waiting for them and they set off back to Spain.

They landed in Iria flavia on the coast of Galicia, some twenty kilometers from what is now Santiago de Compostela, after a Journey which is purported to have taken only a week, thereby providing proof of angelic assistance. Saint James’s body was then buried in a tomb on a hillside, along and forgotten for the next 750 years. The story is considerably more complicated than this but these are the bare bones.

Early in the ninth century Pelagius, a hermit living in that part of Spain, had a vision (which he subsequently reported to Theodomir, bishop of Ira Flavia) in which he saw a very large bright star, surrounded by a ring of smaller ones, shining over a deserted spot in the hills. The matter was investigated and a tomb found there containing three bodies.

They were immediately identified as those of Saint James and two of his followers and when Alfonso II, King of the Asturias (791-824), went there he declared Saint James the patron saint of Spain. It is said he built a church and a small monastery over the tomb in the saint’s honour, around which a town grew up, to be known as ‘Campus de Ia stella’ or ‘Campus Steliae’, the Field of the Star, later shortened to Compostela. This is one explanation of the origin of the name. Another is that it derives from the Latin componere (to bury), as a Roman cemetery or early Christian necropolis is known to have existed under the site of the present day cathedral in Santiago where the remains of Saint James are claimed to rest today.

The route to Santiago follows an old Roman trade-route. It was nicknamed by travellers ‘la voje ladee’, “Voie lactée” the Milky Way.  It was the road under the stars. The pale arm of the Milky Way stretched out and pointed the way to the edge of the known world: to Cape Finisterre.  We know that for pilgrims reaching Santiago in the Middle Ages it was as obligatory to venture on to the chapel of Nuestra Senora at Finisterre, the last finger of land crooked into the ocean. Although it is known today that Cape Finisterre, Spain’s westernmost point, is not the westernmost point of Europe (Cabo da Roca in Portugal is farther west), the fact that the Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world or Land’s End in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as such.

One explanation for the journey to continue to Finisterre is that there may have been an earlier pilgrimage, of far earlier provenance than the church.

One such legend holds that walking the route was a pagan fertility ritual. In Roman mythology, shells were symbols of prosperity, regeneration, nurturing, and fertility for which reasons the shell is a representative of Venus, the goddess of love and fertility. Venus is said to be created from the foam carried ashore atop a scallop shell.  An alternative interpretation is that the scallop, which resembles the setting sun, was the focus of pre-Christian Celtic rituals of the area. The Pilgrims’ road may be related to prehistoric cults of fertility arriving to Atlantic Europe from Mediterranean shores. Symbols of Ashtarte, the star within a circle, or Aphrodite, Venus coming on a shell, have been found along the roads to Compostela, and among the ancient basques’ mythology and legends, those related to Mari, the Mairu and the rising of Megaliths. Joseph Campbell associated the cult of Mari to that of Ishtar and Kali and in pre-Israelites times, the rejected consort of God called “the great prostitute”, Asherah. There are also claims that the pre-Christian origin of the pilgrimage was a Celtic death journey, westwards towards the setting sun, terminating at the End of the World (Finisterra) on the “Coast of Death” (Costa da Morte) and the “Sea of Darkness” – the Mare Tenebrosum – an ancient for the Atlantic Ocean.

Frontispice of Le Mystère des Cathédrales by Fulcanelli (1926). Illustration by Julien Champagne.

In Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals the pilgrimage to Compo-stella is decoded as a metaphor for one of the processes for making the Philosopher’s Stone, namely the method using antimony. “This method will produce stellated crystals in the arm of the retort, which are then further worked upon. A common misunderstanding which mislead many, including Newton, is that the “stellate regulus” of antimony is the matter to be used.
The pilgrim’s shell was a motif used by the alchemist Jacques Coeur on the many buildings he erected, and was his personal motif; it is also the shell upon which Venus rides as she rises from the sea (morning star = stellated matter); this ocean is green, the colour of many Venusian minerals, but it’s meaning is deeper. Basil Valentine said that the alchemists called their first matter by the name of anything green to confuse the ignorant, but in truth there is such a first matter that is a green esculent water. Venus represents the generative force, the power of attraction/repulsion which brings forth the cosmos. Her water is that of the Fire of Desire which motivates this push and pull. The shape of the calabash carried by the pilgrims is another clue to the source of this green water.
It was also common for churches to place holy water in a container shaped like this shell, although it is unlikely most clerics would know why. This holy water (imbued with the Spirit) was another metaphor for the Mercury of the Philosophers.”

Fulcanelli wrote:

‘This goal is a strange substance, which the Chemistry of men ignores, which they have never analyzed, and which they will perhaps ignore forever. It is a substance which university theses do not describe, and whose very name makes the profane smile. This substance is the “Chrysoprase”, the Philosophers Stone.

To obtain these fine crystals, of the colour of ruby, to which the shadows instantly reflect back their mysterious luminescence, the artisan of the Great Work will have met strange companions along the way: such as the Archons who stand watch over the successive thresholds of the intermediary worlds, the better to bar the way to the seeker, innumerable and symbolic personalities: the Crow and the Swan, the Lion and the Dragon, the King and the Queen, etc., each of which poses their particular enigma for him to solve.

It is only after having understood the secret meaning of these symbols that the pilgrim will finally see rise, shining in the heart of the metallic shadows, the Star of Compostella, which announces the end of the golden periplus.

Yet, divorced from any rational basis, and without any possibility for industrial application, the procedure employed nevertheless constitutes a real spiritual enrichment for the Hermeticist, since Life will eventually deliver one of its greatest secrets to him. Now transmuted by this second Revelation, the Initiate finally becomes the Adept, and, in the plane of his inner spiritual alone, with the Arcana finally conquered, he can finally become transformed, to become and remain forever: the Illuminated One.

As the mysterious Stone engenders and multiplies itself in continuous mathematical progression; the Illuminated One, in his turn, transmits his own spiritual light to those who, intelligent and docile prima materia, will themselves accept the need to die as lead in order to be better reborn as gold.’

Also: “The secret of alchemy is this: there is a way of manipulating matter and energy so as to produce what modern scientists call ‘a field of force‘. The field acts on the observer and puts him in a privileged position vis-à-vis the universe. From this position he has access to the realities which are ordinarily hidden from us by time and space, matter and energy.  This is what we call the Great Work.

When Bergier asked Fulcanelli about the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemist answered: “…the vital thing is not the transmutation of metals but that of the experimenter himself. It is an ancient secret that a few people rediscover each century. Unfortunately, only a handful are successful…”

“The pilgrimage of St. Iago of Compostella, is one of those enigmatic myths of the quest of the Great Work.”

In alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret and perfect language and the key to perfect knowledge, sometimes also called the langue verte, or Green Language.

Pilgrims on the Camino often wear a scallop shell as an emblem, also called mérelle. It is a well-known symbol of the pilgrimage now. And in the Great Work, upon the finally decomposed prima materia, a crystalline silver star must appear and float upon the surface – a first indication that the Operator is on the right path. These emblems and symbols are part of the Green Language.

The relationship between the geographical area of the ancient Galician Finisterrae and the cult of Saint James was established shortly after the discovery of the apostle’s tomb. Local traditions, possibly from the Swabian/Suebian era (5th-6th century A.D.), indicate St. James the Apostle’s connection to this area. In the 10th century A.D., new tales appeared regarding his presence and, halfway through the following century, the definitive version was set down in Book 3 of the Codex Calixtinus. Thus, Finisterre has become a solid part of the European Pilgrim’s Way of St. James.
The various stories of how St. James’s body was carried to Galicia mention the pagan town of Dugium (Duio), which lay on the isthmus of Finisterre, and from which various remains have disappeared. According to the Codex Calixtinus, when the disciples of Zebedee came ashore at Padrón, Lupa, queen of that area, sent them to Duio so that the Roman legate would authorise them to bury the Apostle. The legate threw them into jail, intending to kill them, but they were freed by an angel and escaped. When the soldiers in pursuit of them were about to catch up with them, they crossed the bridge of Nicraria (which has been identified as the Roman bridge at Ons, now sunken beneath the waters of the Barié de la Maza reservoir). Providentially, the bridge collapsed just as the soldiers were crossing it.
There are political reasons which are always to be found at the root of this kind of ‘Christianising’ event.
‘It’s not hard to see how closely the fates of Spain and the pilgrimage are entwined. Most of Iberia falls to the Moors, some resistance is offered by the Carolingians but their descendants become preoccupied with their own power struggles, Christianity is limited to coastal regions in N Spain, beset by marauding Vikings. Moors are part of the Arab and African world; Christians, part of Europe. Which way will Spain go?’
St. James the Moor Slayer from the Church of Carrión de los Condes, on the pilgrims route, the Camino
 In 844 we have the supposed victory of the Christians over the Muslims at Clavijo, where St James’ legendary intervention leads to the cult of “Santiago Matamoros” meaning “St James the Moor-slayer” – now a somewhat controversial subject, especially as many historians doubt whether the battle even took place.
Into this situation steps the Church. Very conveniently, the tomb of one of the more important apostles is discovered right in the far NW corner of the peninsula. The pilgrimage is strongly encouraged by both church and state, promoted by monastic orders such as Cluny, and policed by orders of knights. The reconquest of Spain is billed as a crusade because it is the home of Santiago, almost as important as the Holy Land. And the pilgrimage is an integral part of efforts to link Spain with Christian Europe.
Without the Moorish invasion, Santiago would probably not exist. And without the links beyond the Pyrenees, in which the pilgrimage played a leading role, Spain might very well now speak Arabic and Galicia might very well be part of Portugal.’ – Peter Robins, Santiago History
So we have much food for thought as to the origins and purpose of this pilgrimage – a metaphor for a return from darkness to light, whether ritual, historical or symbolic, and possibly a combination of James/Iago/Giacomo/Iacchus the torch bearer, bringing the light at the head of the procession from Eleusis, the herald of the ‘divine child’ of the Goddess, born in the darkness of underworld.

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